So I'm really getting into this Jean Rollin fellow, and Kino Lorber continues to be the best source for his films on DVD and Blu-ray. Recently, they released three of his films -- Requiem for a Vampire, The Demoniacs and The Rape of the Vampire -- on this latter format, and I watched them all. Please for to see below.
That's the plot, and most of it comes in the film's last chunk. Rollin seems to have disdained dialogue, preferring to function as a strict mood filmmaker. A lot of the imagery inside the castle, when the girls first arrive, is of the Halloween haunted house variety, with skeletons wearing clothes and chains on walls holding decaying corpses, and even a green glow when the vampire first arrives and spreads his cape. The "What is that about?" nature of the clown costumes (which are shed as quickly as possible, in favor, at first, of nothing, and then of what I guess would have to count as regular clothes) initially gives the film the kind of dreamy tone Rollin so liked to imbue his films with, so it's sort of surprising that he bothers to offer an explanation for them later. Surprising and disappointing, to a degree. Also somewhat disappointing is the sudden rush of plot, but here Rollin is actually heading somewhere rather interesting. There are a few things about Rollin that are unique to this kind of film, and that make their way into Requiem for a Vampire. Among them is that the lesbian scenes, of which he was a great supporter, aren't really there just to be there. Castel and Dargent's naked lounging may at first seem like gratuitous skin, and it certainly is that, but as the film goes along you realize that they were lounging naked not because it's the 1970s and these chicks'll do whatever, man, but because they actually have a relationship together, which becomes important. Important also is the film's title, its original title, and it's fascinating the way Rollin brings an air of melancholy to the film's climax. It's not melancholy in the way vampire stories tend to be melancholy, because a vampire's life is so very difficult, but because the vampire in this film is the last, the end. We may not like vampires much, you and I, but he's not only the last of a breed, as it were, but of a culture, which is maybe perhaps part of what Rollin's on about here. Not specific vampires, but the Gothic tradition in horror was not to be popular, or even practiced, for very much longer, by 1973, and Rollin might well have sensed the end. In Requiem for a Vampire, he may have been preparing to say goodbye to the kinds of films he loved. Of course, as it happens, the end was not quite so imminent as all that.
The Demoniacs has a wonderful folkloric feel to it, and turns out to be relatively talky (it’s also the nakedest Rollin film I’ve watched so far, and that’s really saying something). The events on the haunted island, which involve a helpful clown and, as I’ve said, maybe the devil, are reasonably bonkers, but they feed into the legends being whispered on the mainland, where the wreckers know that something terrible is heading their way. That terribleness does not come in any ordinary way, and in fact Rollin might well be accused of allowing his film to turn a bit flabby in the final stretch as he chooses to restore his heroes to some kind of humanity, but as a result turns a great deal of set up into a lot of wasted breath. Though I suppose it depends on how you look at it. For people like Rollin and Mario Bava, with whom he has a few things in common, a rigorous adherence to plot, either in terms of coherence or even classic structure, are not especially important. Of the Rollin films I’ve seen, The Demoniacs actually comes the closest to this kind of storytelling, (barring perhaps Fascination, which may not have much plot, but sticks to what it has), but the story finally becomes a meandering tour through the various sights Rollin would like to show you. Ultimately, I don’t really have a problem with this because The Demoniacs concludes on a note of what I’ll have to describe as localized Apocalypse. There’s nothing much good to take away from the water-logged horrors of the ending – even Joelle Couer’s nudity, up to now used as an enticement of an admittedly depraved sort, becomes a symbol of full-on hellishness. But her character always was the siren of the group, and you all know where sirens lead you.
The Rape of the Vampire - And of course, just when I thought Rollin's films couldn't get any more bugfuck, I watch this one, his 1968 feature length debut. Subtitled a "Melodrama in Two Parts," The Rape of the Vampire somehow manages to be at once itself and its completely off-the-rails sequel, the climax of part one seguing into part two without changing scenes but still being a completely different animal. The first half of the film tells the story of a psychiatrist (Bernard Letrou) and his two associates who seek out four women who have secluded themselves in a Gothic manor, where they either are, or simply believe they are, vampires. They are supported, and in fact possibly brainwashed, into this belief by the elderly lord of the manor. The inhabitants of the surrounding village also believe in their vampirism, and rather quickly any naive belief the viewer might have that this will be some quiet mood piece is shattered. The Rape of the Vampire is a film that rather amazingly includes things like gunfights and car chases, but in the film's first story these elements appear as the signal that reason, what little of it that was available, is shattering around the psychiatrist. Not a vampire story in any ordinary sense, this section of the film is already anticipating the horror, and specifically vampire horror, deconstruction of films like George Romero's Martin, while never distancing itself from the Gothic trappings of torch-lit duels at night or tortured maidens in nightgowns. Or, for that matter, death on the rocky beaches of France, the tides washing over fresh corpses, images and ideas Rollin would return to again and again in, for example, well, The Demoniacs, as well as Lips of Blood.
As good, and as interesting, as the first part of The Rape of the Vampire is, however, it's the second part, called "The Vampire Woman," that truly reveals that Rollin was already, with his first film, playing a game far different from everyone else. Utterly bizarre, relentlessly so, the film's second half begins on the aforementioned beach and shifts gears from our piles of bodies from the previous story to the Queen of Vampires (Jacqueline Sieger) and her quest for women recently killed violently, and her clinic run by a doctor (Jean-Loup Phillipe) who has been tasked by this queen to find a cure for vampirism. The story here is so mental that, in his essay about the three films discussed in this post that is included in each of the Kino Lorber discs, no less an expert on this sort thing than Tim Lucas was moved to call the film "baffling." And so it is. But fascinating, too, in the way it continues the subversion of vampire films it began with such relative subtlety earlier. Here, though, vampires as an idea are so thoroughly upended that they might as well not even be vampires -- they could be creatures of any undead sort, so little do they pursue normal vampire interests, nor do they go out of their way to avoid what a vampire might ordinarily want to steer clear from. Eventually, The Rape of the Vampire will become positively Bergmanesque in its imagery, and even in the sound of the words being spoken, by which I mean the tone of voice, and the cure, when it is revealed, and for reasons beyond its spooky similarity to drug use, addiction, and overdose, is a devastating punchline, one that reminds me, just now as I write this, and in the most ancillary way imaginable, of Isaac Asimov's "The Obvious Factor," one of his Black Widower mystery stories. In both the Asimov story and The Rape of the Vampire, which otherwise resemble each other not in the least, reason, or a version of it in the case of Rollin's film, is restored through simple logic. The reception of this logic is one of the many differences between the two works -- in "The Obvious Factor," it is greeted with a kind of smug delight (not a knock on the Asimov story, which is the kind of mystery story that can only be written once, and so it has been, by Asimov, so that one is now completely off the table), while in The Rape of the Vampire the characters regard it with humble dismay. Of course that's the answer. What a nightmare.